Toronto's lineup, announced Tuesday, has awards pundits drooling in anticipation, but here's some free advice: Wipe away the drool and manage your expectations.
A few years ago, the Canadian fest was the focus of many awards campaigns. But the situation is changing so quickly that Toronto is still a big factor, but it's no longer the key factor. And that's a good thing for everybody.
There are certainly plenty of tantalizing Toronto titles. The ones that sound (on paper) like strong awards contenders include "Black and White" (Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer in a custody battle), "The Equalizer" (Denzel Washington, reuniting with Antoine Fuqua), "The Imitation Game" (Benedict Cumberbatch), "The Judge" (Robert Downey Jr., pictured), "Men, Women and Children" (directed by Jason Reitman), "Nightcrawler" (Jake Gyllenhaal, in Dan Gilroy's film-directing debut), and "Theory of Everything" (Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking), as well as Cannes hits like "Foxcatcher" and "Mr. Turner."
Other dark-horse kudos possibilities include "Cake" (Jennifer Aniston); "Miss Julie" (Jessica Chastain); "My Old Lady" with Maggie Smith; "Rosewater" (Jon Stewart's helming bow); Oren Moverman's "Time Out of Mind" with Richard Gere; two Al Pacino-starrers, "Manglehorn" and "The Humbling"; and two Reese Witherspoon vehicles, "The Good Lie" and "Wild."
That's a lot of great potential. Studio reps are enthused about all of them, but the real test comes when NON-studio people get a peek.
Oscar pundits often say that each festival announcement offers important clues to the awards-season outcome. They see the inclusion of a film as validation, and fret over missing titles. But the fact is, the key to the awards race is always the surprises. Last year at this point, "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" were barely on the radar.
When Oscar ceremonies switched to an earlier date in 2004, Toronto's awards importance increased and strategists targeted it as a great showcase. But last year showed a shift. Toronto's two awards heavy-hitters were "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" -- which had their respective premieres in Telluride and Venice. Toronto also showed "Philomena" (Venice) and "The Great Beauty" (Cannes). Its biggest claim to fame was the world premiere of "Dallas Buyers Club."
Other 2013 Toronto films that had been touted as awards favorites were "August: Osage County," "The Invisible Woman," "Prisoners" and "Rush." All scored Oscar nominations, but not many. Toronto's 2013 lineup also included "The Fifth Estate," "Kill Your Darlings," "Labor Day," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "One Chance" and "Parkland." Though some were very good, none turned out to be major awards contenders.
Was last year an oddity, or a sign of the shifting landscape? And as Toronto's primacy is in question, other fall festivals are gaining steam, including Telluride, Venice, and the quickly rising New York, London and AFI festivals. This year, Venice premieres "Birdman," New York has "Gone Girl" and "Inherent Vice." Meanwhile, "Boyhood," "Foxcatcher," "Mr. Turner" and "Whiplash" have already established their awards cred at other festivals.
So if Toronto is losing an awards focus, it's like a market correction. No fest should be all-powerful, and the switch means Toronto will regain its equilibrium as an awards venue -- and, just as important, as a showcase for acquisitions and offbeat films that need attention. That's how Toronto rose to prominence, and that's a role it can play well.
At Tuesday morning's press conference, TIFF director-CEO Piers Handling said there will be 260-300 feature films this year. He also talked about the fest's new policy, which specifies only world premieres in the first four days: He said it doesn't affect the selection, but does affect the scheduling. Clarity was needed because "There's a lot more focus on festivals and a lot more prominence." That could prove to be one of the biggest understatements of the fall fest circuit.
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